Friday, February 17, 2012

Ye Oldest(?) Synagogue

Looking up at synagogue gates

(ScoutingNY did a blog series last week about the lovely, lovely island of St. John.  Which made me think about my own trip there, last January.  Which reminded me that I never posted this particular set of pictures.  So here you go - one year later - one more look back at the island.)

On our last day in paradise, my friends and I took a boat from St. John back to the main island of St. Thomas.  I had a later return flight than the rest of the group, so I killed a couple hours wandering around Charlotte Amalie before heading to the airport.

The main drag of the town is lined with high-end jewelry and souvenier stores. Neither is really my scene, so I visited the local synagogue, because... well, because of course I did.  

Here's a fun fact for you:  What is the oldest synagogue in America?  According to Wikipedia, that's a difficult designation to define.  Oldest congregation or oldest physical building?  Oldest that's been consistently used as a synagogue, or oldest that was at some point converted for other purposes?

Apparently there are quite a few synagogues vying for title of "oldest," but the synagogue on St. Thomas claims to be "the oldest in continuous use under the American flag."  How about that!

Still, that designation seems a little wonky to me, because St. Thomas wasn't acquired by the US until 1917, so technically this synagogue has only been under the American flag for the last 95 years.  But titles aside, it is quite old: the congregation was originally founded in 1796 (when the island was under the control of Denmark) and was housed in two buildings, each subsequently destroyed by fire.  The current building was erected in 1833 and has been holding weekly services ever since.


Check this out - the synagogue has sand floors!  At first I thought this was just an island-y touch, but apparently there is deeper symbolism.  Per their website:
"The sand on the floor is a remnant of the days of the Marranos, Jews during the Spanish Inquisition who were forced to convert to Christianity but who secretly continued to practice their Judaism. Since practicing Judaism was punishable by death, they met in cellars with sand covering the floor in order to muffle the sounds of their prayers."
Wikipedia suggests a second theory: the sand represents the Israelites' journey through the desert.

The Rabbi shows off the torah scroll collection

I visited just as the head rabbi was showing another group of tourists the Torah collection housed in the synagogue.

Several of the scrolls are very old and historic.  I just tried to find more information about them online, and instead stumbled upon this Travel/Bar Mitzvah site.  Did you know that, in addition to destination weddings, people also have destination Bar/Bat Mitzvahs?  Apparently they do.  File that in your fact folder.

Aha - here is an article about one of the Torah scrolls that St. Thomas has in their collection - dating to 1771, the scroll was used by Jews in Czechoslovakia, before being stolen by the Nazis, before being rescued by a group in London, before somehow ending up in the possession of a couple from New York, before being donated to the St. Thomas synagogue.  What a journey!

Looking up in the synagogue

Looking up: chandelier and ceiling relief.

Inside looking out at the synagogue

The St. Thomas synagogue is beautiful, if a study in contrasts.  The well-maintained mahogany fixtures and refined architectural elements seem in contrast with an unfinished sand floor.  And the troubled past that the sand floor recalls - as well as the sad history represented by that rescued Torah scroll - seems in contrast with the idyllic, sunny paradise that waits just outside the door.

It's a mish-mash of joy and pain, of loveliness and hardship.  A testament to perseverance.  And a nice place to visit, if you want to sit in the shade for a bit and think about how all that is a lot like life itself.


Robin said...

Very cool!

Sonja said...

I agree, that's super cool! Thanks for sharing your facts and fotos!